Hot Docs

Fashion Babylon Review: You Better Werk

Hot Docs 2022

/
7 mins read

Fashion Babylon
(France, 75 min.
Dir. Gianluca Matarrese
Program: Nightvision (North American Premiere)

 

If the world is truly on fire, than we must all go out with our heels on. Fashion Babylon examines the end of an era as the queens of haute couture convene for one final strut down the runway. Director Gianluca Matarrese explores the Paris fashion scene from three perspective in this brisk documentary. Haitian-born fashion influencer Michelle Elie turns heads in flamboyant lewks. Ex-pat American socialite/photographer Casey Spooner scrapes by on free clothes and goodwill. Those two veterans bring colourful perspectives to Fashion Babylon, but the real draw here is fashionista Violet Chachki. The winner of the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race established herself as one of the franchise’s most fashionable queens. Matarrese’s film finds its most intriguing moments as it observes Chachki’s whirlwind agenda. She’s a slave to fashion, and the film considers if the industry’s taken that well-worn adage too much to heart.

Fashion Babylon weaves between the runways and the run-ups to the big shows amid Paris’ Fashion Week. Elie draws lots of attention with her personalized garments that accentuate curves and cultural influences. She’s also a rebel at heart as she defies the gatekeepers by crashing fashion shows and parties. As she admits to Matarrese, she rarely has an invitation, but often gets in. That observation lets the film reflect how the fashion industry is at a moment of change. Self-styled sirens like Elie can assert their place on the scene by wielding influence. Anyone with an eye of fashion and an Instagram account can become a tastemaker. They just have to prove it and put in the work. And, as these stories show, making it in fashion isn’t easy.

Spooner and the Bright Young Thing

The contrast between Spooner and Chachki, meanwhile, illustrates how brutally unforgiving the fashion scene is. Spooner coasts on reputation after leaving America for Paris to live his dream. However, Matarrese positions him as an old soul from another generation. Spooner seems to have time-travelled à la Midnight in Paris and landed in the age of the Bright Young Things. He’s living in gay Paris and finding designers who want him to amplify their labels by modelling their clothes. Free clothes don’t pay the rent, however, and Fashion Babylon asks how the haute couture dynasty can survive on influence and cachet alone. Spooner’s unsuccessful presidential bid, meanwhile, adds a spot of fun to the film. Although it also makes the fashion scene look totally depressing if the odds for one career aspiration seem better than the other.

Violet Chachki, on the other hand, is a game-changing fashion ingénue. Winning the crown on Drag Race gives her a massive following and a boost of celebrity that someone like Elie lacks. Moreover, Chachki’s signature corseted looks—cinched so tight that RuPaul once laughed, “Internal organs, who needs them!”—proved to designers that she knows fashion. Chachki, who came off as arrogant, cold, and naïve on Drag Race, fares much better here thanks to the passage of time. Matarrese finds hints of the fashion brat, but Chachki displays a work ethic to match her eye for clothes. She’s earned her aura. However, Fashion Babylon observes how winning one of queer culture’s biggest races doesn’t make the grind of the industry any easier.

The Fall of Babylon

Chachki’s story offers a cautionary tale for any wannabe influencer. Matarrese chronicles how she navigates the cutthroat scene, changing outfits in the car while speeding from one show to the other. Labels highlight her relevance by seating her in the front row with cool kids like Anna Wintour and Céline Dion. Everyone loves her sense of style, but they want nothing last season. She works the runway as much as the models do, giving off the scent of success while barely getting by.

The drag queen also gives Fashion Babylon its dramatic arc, whereas Elie and Spooner mostly vaunt from show to show for spectator sport. Chachki, meanwhile, lands a coveted spot in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s final show in January 2020. It’s something of a crowning achievement for her, being asked to strut the runway with veteran models and traditional signifiers of beauty. By owning her brand and sense of style, she’s changing the face of fashion with one of the top designer’s co-signing her appeal. But things go terribly awry and she learns how quickly and cruelly fortune changes. Then the COVID-19 pandemic changes the world shortly after Chachki jets home.

Matarresse sees in these snippets from fashion week and from Gaultier’s farewell show something of a bye-bye bacchanal. Audio clips reference fatigue with “fast fashion” and the wastefulness of an industry that builds nothing to last. Fashion Babylon captures the beauty and ugliness of a scene that goes to pains to be au courant but, in reality, is no longer en vogue.

 

Fashion Babylon premieres at Hot Docs 2022 on May 1.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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